It’s a Mystery!

25 Jan 2011 in Film, Visual Arts & Crafts

I spend part of most Sundays reloading my MP3 player with a batch of BBC podcasts, to see me, like a sheep’s heid, through the week. A regular item is the ten minute Radio 4 slot ‘A Point of View’. The current contributor is the popular (or should that be ‘populist’?) philosopher Alain de Botton. In his first programme he was reflecting on the savage cuts in funding (in England at least) to the arts and humanities. His argument was that those who work in those fields had only themselves to blame for these cuts: that the purpose of the arts and humanities was to teach us how to live, and academics, in particular, had lost sight of that central truth. It was a very spirited proposition but, in the end, perhaps, he offered just another version of the ‘instrumental’ argument that has bedevilled the question of arts funding for many years. That is, how useful should the arts be?

Last weekend we were at Eden Court as part of a packed audience to see that excellent film ‘The King’s Speech’. Now, you could say that this is a really useful film if you suffer from a speech impediment (or work as a speech therapist!). At least one commentator on the Internet Movie Database took that reductionist line, and so dismissed the film as being of a very minority appeal! Or you could be a bit more sophisticated and argue that it shows us how, with courage and perseverance, we can overcome our weaknesses and be of value to others. That, I imagine, would be Alain de Botton’s position.  And there’s no doubt that the film is very uplifting in that respect.

But to view such a rich and complex film—or indeed any serious work of art—in those linear terms is surely to diminish it. If the film ‘tells’ us anything (and it’s not clear to me that a work of art needs to ‘tell’ us anything at all) then surely it is also about the sheer contingency of history: how different would the course of events have been if Edward VIII hadn’t met Wallis Simpson, or if George VI had not met someone who could help him overcome his stammer, and enable him to become a figurehead for Britain’s resistance to Hitler?

And of course it’s also about that perennial theme, common since the time of Shakespeare, ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’, and about the changes in the meaning of monarchy in the 20th century (something too subtle for some of the American IMDB commentators, sadly). And then it’s about male friendship, and the difficulties of articulating one’s feelings, man to man, and about the contrast between our inner life and the exterior shell we present to the world. And the diminishing power of spoken rhetoric in the world of the soundbite. I could go on.

The point is that none of those elements alone explain why I think ‘The King’s Speech’ is a great film—a view clearly shared by a very large percentage of the population. Of course one can also argue that it is a beautifully crafted film—intelligently written, sensitively acted, and directed with imagination and a close attention to detail. All of that is true too, but could still have resulted in something that was ultimately dull and worthy, or of only minority interest.

No, ‘The King’s Speech’ touches a nerve in so many people because all those factors—the subject matter, the underlying themes, the craftsmanship—come together to be distilled into something very much more than the sum of those parts: sheer, cinematic, magic. And that of course is ultimately indefinable and unpredictable. As one of the stars of the film, Geoffrey Rush, says in another of his great roles—Philip Henslowe in ‘Shakespeare in Love’–It’s a mystery!

So to come back to de Botton’s argument, if we view something like ‘The King’s Speech’ only in terms of its positive and utilitarian values, then we miss almost everything that truly makes it exceptional.

Look at it another way. My favourite weekly podcast is undoubtedly the Mayo and Kermode Film Reviews on BBC 5Live. Mark Kermode is of course a huge fan of horror movies—the gorier the better. Now it’s hard to see where this genre fits in de Botton’s hierarchy of values, though there are fans out there who’d have you believe that it is useful to know how to survive a zombie apocalypse. Britain has always had a problem with horror, first banning American horror comics back in the 50s, and then, in the 80s, there was the scare about ’video nasties’. Perhaps this is the other side of the coin from de Botton’s argument—if it’s the role of the arts to be useful in a positive way, then we surely need to deplore and ban those artistic products likely, as the saying goes, ‘to corrupt and deprave’. Even though, surely, an essential role for the artist is to be disruptive and contrary. No wonder Plato wanted to ban poets from his republic.

But, despite occasional high profile stories in the tabloids, there’s little or no evidence that watching horror movies has any harmful effect whatsoever. As Kermode says, the people who make these films are often the nicest in the film industry—it’s the guys behind the big blockbusters who’re really nasty!

So, do I really think, with Oscar Wilde, that ’all art is quite useless’? Well no, and I don’t think Oscar did either. It certainly isn’t utilitarian in the sense Alain de Botton means, but I have a profound belief in its impact, it’s just that I don’t think that impact lies in anything so obvious as the linear ‘meaning’ of a work of art. As I’ve written before, evolutionary psychology tells us that we are pre-programmed to see patterns everywhere, as a fundamental survival skill. It therefore follows that, just as our sense of taste guides us to things that are good to eat, so, as well as keeping us alive, patterns that are particularly pleasing will affect us at a very deep—usually sub-verbal–level. That’s obvious in music and the visual arts, but I think it’s equally true in the way that all the elements can come together in a piece of theatre or a film—what Wagner termed a gesamtkunstwerk.

The trouble with all of this is that it’s very hard to fight for when you’re stuck in the bear-pit that public funding has become. Though there are some signs that the Coalition is moving away from New Labour’s obsession with targets and statistics, public funders still want to see outcomes that are tangible and measurable. And that’s precisely where the arts are at their weakest. It may be easy to argue that a suitably high-minded film like ‘The King’s Speech’ ‘made me a better person’, but my case is, that this is the wrong argument.

Readers of my favourite magazine, ‘The Word’, were asked to vote for their favourite track of 2010. The winner by a long way was Cee Lo Green’s ‘F**k You!’ (my asterisks), and despite its explicit (and potentially offensive) title it is a joyous, exuberant, life-affirming four minutes of perfect pop music. Just as in ‘The King’s Speech’ all the elements have gelled to make something special. And I just about guarantee you’ll feel better for listening to it.

Footnote: earlier in the week I was in Aberdeen Art Gallery for a meeting, and so managed to see the current BP Portrait Award exhibition Now I’ve always had a problem with this Award, and this time round I worked out why: it seems to me that too many of the selected artists are trying to produce work that fits the Awards’ ‘house style’—hyper-realistic, technically superb, and/or quirky in subject matter or handling. There was much to admire, but little, for me, to love. Then, the first painting I saw when I stepped out of the exhibition was a small nude in an interior painted in 1920 by Dorothy Johnstone .  This had everything that I’d been missing among all the ferocious technique of the BP portraits: directness, integrity, a perfect balance. I wanted to snatch it off the wall and slip it under my coat. How had the artist achieved this? Don’t ask me –It’s a mystery!

© Robert Livingston 2011